Sound Sensitivity – Part Two

Back on the topic of sound sensitivities… unfortunately we’re now fully immersed in the season of fireworks and thunderstorms.  Arlo is actually holding up very well, especially considering recent history.

For a time, Arlo was triggered on nearly every walk, and it was difficult to find a day that he wasn’t triggered. His reaction was generally one of two things: shutting down and marching or frantically pulling, frequently towards the house or car.  Luckily, the majority of his reactions were of the first, somewhat milder, variety.  Increasingly he was being triggered by things imperceptible to me. This was also happening on the street when it previously appeared to have generalized to only parks. I was getting a little bit frightened that he was really going to go down hill.  I thought his world was going to get smaller and smaller as this fear generalized…

I’m happy to say, however, that I have seen a lot of progress for the better in the last couple of weeks. Below I’ll go over what I’ve done and what I have yet to do:

Strict management: I cannot overstate the importance of management during recent weeks.  Arlo has been happiest and least likely to be triggered in the morning, so I planned his longer walk during this time and didn’t walk him after dark (he has previously generalized fear to outside-at-night-in-the-summer, due to fireworks, so avoid that risk).  I avoided all parks and green spaces and areas where I suspected scary noises might happen. Luckily, Arlo is older and doesn’t have particularly intensive energy requirements, so I was able to swing this pretty successfully without ending up creating a maniac from lack of exercise.  During fireworks and cracking thunder, Arlo is bundled in his thundershirt and anxiety wrap (see the bit on TTouch below) and lying close to a loud radio. I have dog airplane earmuffs (yes, they do exist.  They are called “MuttMuffs” and are sold for dogs flying in small planes, which are apparently quite loud).  I put the effort into counter conditioning these last year, but I don’t think they actually block the sound that well so I haven’t used them this year.

Arlo makes some noise: Arlo has had a year of semi-retirement, so I’ve dusted off his brain and put him back to work.  I saw Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh in their presentation “Lets Make some Noise!” at ClickerExpo Chicago in March.  The emphasis was not so much on already sound sensitive dogs as it was on preventing sound sensitivities in agility dogs but they certainly had some good ideas that I could put to use.  Specifically, they discussed teaching a dog a targeting behaviour that would make a noise – for instance, knocking over a tin can.  The dog has full agency in this situation.  Rather than being ‘subjected’ to the sound, they learn that they can control the sound and can get something tasty to boot! Arlo loves poking at things with his big, long nose anyway (see picture above), so this was a fun activity for him. I’ve set up plastic bottles, tupperware, and small boxes to knock over and off of things, as well as having him close cabinet doors.  He has a limited attention span (due in part to lack of training in recent months!), but seems to enjoy the activity. If using a clicker, Eva and Emilie were sure to point out, click after the resulting sound.  No one wants to poison their clicker by having the click predict the scary noise!! I’ve fallen out of habit recently, so I will start up this training again.

The other thing that Eva and Emilie discussed is what the Cascade Institute of Equestrian Studies terms an “Initiator Signal”.  This video shows how this might work when backing a green horse – the horse has the option to “invite” the rider to jump on his back (and subsequently be clicked/treated) and he has the option to decline.  The horse’s decision is respected and he is allowed to consider the process.   I haven’t implemented this with Arlo, but I do love the concept of integrating the animal to thoroughly into the training process and allowing them to decide when to start the next trial.  Agency on the part of the animal is an underrated aspect of training and behaviour modification.

Tellington TTouch: I had a friend and TTouch practitioner over to teach me how to properly use TTouch techniques.  To learn more about this body work method, visit Linda Tellington-Jones’s website.  Sandra showed me ear slides, “clouded leopard” touch, tail pearling, and an anxiety wrap.  I am to focus on Arlo’s back end, tail, and lips, as Sandra observed he holds a lot of tension in these body parts.  He absolutely does, though I’ve never connected it with his sound sensitivities specifically, it seems that many sound sensitive dogs are similar.  Arlo quite enjoys the tail pearling and he is noticeably less tight-assed!

Bach Flower Remedies: Specifically Rescue Remedy. I’ve been warned by my homeopathic vet to avoid Xylitol (an artificial sweetener) at all costs, as it causes severe liver damage in dogs, and it is unfortunately in some Rescue Remedy products. I didn’t notice any difference with the use of this product, though I know many people swear by it.

Let him think: While I haven’t done this in a very structured way, my conversation with Grisha Stewart (see “BAT” below) made me more aware of what I was doing in some situations.  My immediate reaction is to get Arlo out of scary situations before he is further triggered.  Sound is so difficult to control. If there’s one scary noise there is apt to be another and I can’t do a damn thing about it.  However, there are some more minor triggers that I can be pretty sure will not occur again.  For example, a construction truck went over some big bumps in the road and made a most horrendous sound.  Arlo shrunk about 6 inches, his ears flattened out, and his eyes bulged in a freeze response.  Instead of rushing him off I stood still with a loose leash until Arlo showed some more relaxed behaviours, at which point we moved off again.  The truck was already gone and there was nothing left in the immediate environment that would trigger him, so there was nothing really to manage despite my impulse.  I was so sure that this was going to take him out and I’d have to turn for home, but to my surprise he recovered very quickly.  I can see how this might relate to what I’ll write about BAT, below.

Homeopathics:  I am off to see my homeopathic vet on Wednesday.  She has some ideas of different remedies to try that may help.  I’ll see how that goes.

BAT: I’ve been thinking a whole lot about how to swing BAT in this situation. I have been more keen on BAT than I have been on straight out counter conditioning because Arlo is just not that *keen* on things that I can easily control in a training situation. This has always been a problem in basic training (obedience, etc.), but it does pose an even bigger problem with behavioural work. To effectively work a CC protocol, I would need something that Arlo has a thrilled emotional response to – this reaction on his part is what becomes the conditioned emotional response to the previously scary stimulus.  Not easy to do when I can’t find something that really thrills him.  So this is why I thought I’d give BAT a try.

I did have one problem… I couldn’t figure out the mechanics of how to expose him to his trigger and be able to control the removal of it.  It is often a single “POP” that triggers him and I didn’t know how to keep such a finite sound around long enough to be able to R- any less fearful behaviours – otherwise it would be “pop…pop…pop…pop…”etc.  If the sound disappeared immediately when he is triggered, without reintroducing the sound again, I was not sure how to control the functional reward for less-fearful-behaviours since the sound would already be gone…  I was thinking that each “POP” sound would act like a separate trigger, so the multiple pops would look more like trigger stacking (albeit with one trigger) than it would a persistent exposure to one trigger that could then easily be removed as reinforcement.  It also seemed to me that the break between each individual “pop” could also throw things off when it came to removing the sound (“Is it actually gone? or will it sneak up on me in a moment?”)

Armed with these many questions I emailed Grisha Stewart (see link above).  She kindly replied for a bit of a back-and-forth and helped me work out a plan to be able to implement BAT.   The plan?  One, single “POP”, and the functional reward will be leaving the location where it happened.  This is in contrast to an ongoing exposure to the trigger and removal of the trigger to reinforce less-fearful-behaviour.  What I need to do to make this possible is a bit of sound editing.  I can’t imagine I’ll be able to time my fireworks CD for a single pop and pause it, so my plan is to edit the sound down to “silence – POP – silence” and I can control the volume on each trial and play the sound file once.

My primary concern is that he’ll generalize fear to the room where I’m doing the trials, which isn’t necessarily specific to BAT.  That said, he hasn’t generalized fear to a room when he hears fireworks go off.  My other concern is how to generalize this learned response to outdoors (where it is more of an issue).  I guess I’ll have to buy a boombox, or whatever the kids call them nowadays.

Currently, Arlo is doing quite well.  He was in the backyard when someone set off fireworks (during the day?!).  He was of course triggered, but recovered and on his own decided to come back outside within about 5-7min.  I used him as my decoy dog during training with a client at the exhibition grounds last week – that is where he was initially triggered badly enough to cause this recent downward spiral.  He was perfectly happy for the hour-long session.  He’s been going to some parks and doing well enough that I decided to bring him along for a picnic on the Toronto Islands this weekend.  We traveled over on the Centre Island Ferry which put us fairly close to the Island Airport… While the planes overhead weren’t “popping”, they fit well enough with his profile of a trigger that he shutdown and looked miserable. Boo. We walked over to Wards Island where the airplanes were far less audible and he recovered relatively quickly and was able to sleep happily in the sun while I stuffed my face with delicious food (yum).

Sound sensitivities are so sticky and so hard to manage, I don’t think Arlo will ever be a management-free dog when it comes to sound sensitivities.  However, I do hope that my approach is good enough to continue seeing improvement and to keep his world from closing in on him again.  I am not adverse to using psychotropic drugs as a part of behaviour modification, but I would absolutely hate to see Arlo reach the point that this would be a necessary step in managing his anxiety.

Once I get the BAT training underway, I’ll add a Part Three to this two part entry…